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Over 1,200 K-12 schools, with 650K students, to use U. of I.’s rapid COVID-19 tests

“I am proud ... our SHIELD test-and-trace system can provide so many a safe path back to the in-person instruction that is so important,” University of Illinois President Tim Killeen said Tuesday.

A testing staff member explains how to give a saliva sample at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
University of Illinois/Fred Zwicky

More than 1,200 K-12 schools throughout Illinois have signed up to use a COVID-19 saliva test developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that last year helped the college system’s downstate and Chicago campuses avoid major outbreaks of the virus.

The Illinois Department of Public Health is using federal pandemic relief funding to provide the tests for free to all public schools statewide outside Chicago, while another federal program is helping private schools get the tests. More than 650,000 students will now have access.

Chicago’s size meant it received federal funding on its own, not through the state. Chicago Public Schools haven’t yet announced a testing vendor for the school year that starts next week.

The U. of I. tests have been extremely helpful for surveillance testing, which checks for COVID-19 and its variants among asymptomatic people. When those populations are tested regularly on a massive scale, officials can isolate confirmed cases before they spread to others and help schools remain open.

“I am proud that as K-12 students across the state begin a new school year, our SHIELD test-and-trace system can provide so many a safe path back to the in-person instruction that is so important to a good, well-rounded education,” University of Illinois President Tim Killeen said in a news release.

Under new state guidance, students and teachers identified as close contacts of a confirmed case won’t necessarily have to quarantine if they and the close contact were wearing masks. Instead, they can be tested on days one, three, five and seven after exposure, and if they keep testing negative they would have the option of staying in school. IDPH has encouraged all schools statewide to test their unvaccinated students and staff weekly, and those that do will be prioritized for that system.

Many students have appreciated the ease of the U. of I. test, requiring only a saliva sample instead of a nasal swab. Results are returned within 24 hours.

More than 500,000 of the U. of I. tests have been used and processed at schools, universities and businesses, officials said.